When volition is driven by the unwholesome roots of greed, hatred and delusion, it breaks out through the doors of the body and speech in the form of evil deeds — as killing, stealing and fornication, as lying, slander, harsh speech and gossip. In this way the inner world of mental defilement darkens the outer world of spatio-temporal extension. But the defiled trend of volitional movement, though strong, is not irrevocable. Unwholesome volition can be supplanted by wholesome volition, and thence the entire disposition of the mental life made subject to a reversal at its foundation. This redirecting of volition is initiated by voluntarily undertaking the observance of principles of conduct belonging to a righteous order — by willing to abstain from evil and to practice the good. Then, when volition tending to break out as evil action is restrained and replaced by volition of the opposite kind, by the will to behave virtuously in word and deed, a process of reversal will have been started which, if followed through, can produce far-reaching alterations in the moral tone of character. For acts of volition do not spend their full force in their immediate exercise, but rebound upon the mental current which gave birth to them, re-orienting that current in the direction towards which they point as their own immanent tendency: the unwholesome volitions towards moral depravation, and the wholesome volitions towards moral purification. Each time, therefore, an unwholesome volition is supplanted by its wholesome opposite, the will to the good is strengthened.
How can we effect this change – replacing our unwholesome intentions with wholesome ones?
Most of us have some wholesome habits and some unwholesome ones. It’s easy to overlook both, because they are part of a set of assumptions we have about “who we are”.
To undertake this training, we have to be willing to look into our own hearts, action by action. Ajahn Chah often said that liberation exists where suffering exists, and he wasn’t speaking metaphorically. The liberating reversal of our unwholesome inclinations can only happen when one comes up and we notice it.
Here’s an illustration from recent experience: I was chastised verbally by an acquaintance, a sometimes friend who has very good qualities and some pretty annoying ones. When he “told me off” (unjustly, as I thought) an unwholesome feeling arose in me. Checking myself with mindfulness, I saw resentment, judgment, and some anger – unpleasant and strong feelings – clearly present in my body and mind. Recognizing the danger, after only a second or two, I kept silent and let the moment pass without responding. There was embarrassment and frustration, but I knew that there was no action I could take, no word I could say, that would clarify things and dissipate the strong emotion on both sides. This is how it works. It doesn’t necessarily feel satisfying in the moment; it can be hard to let go of things like this. But there was no better path to take in this case, and I have the conviction that by noticing and training my own responses to “things I don’t like”, my clinging decreases and my understanding increases.